I call Madrid the home of PDA (Public display of affection), because the first thing I noticed when I arrived there was that people were never too shy to express their love for one another. Everywhere I went I saw people holding hands, kissing passionately or just sharing subtle moments while they loved each other loudly. Puerta de Toledo, Calle General Rodriguez and Plaza de Mayor quickly replaced Noord, Bree and Jeppestown. As a temporary citizen, they became my common spaces and I spent hours observing people living their lives.
It was here that I witnessed young fathers taking care, and nurturing their children effortlessly, where I experienced an environment with a little less violence; I experienced people living life and not surviving it. The city buzz, loud street vendors and crowded streets were replaced by Christmas lights, people walking dogs and cyclists. It was a huge contrast being in a city where the Vrr Phaa did not entice pedestrians and where every building had a cross on its roof top. I spent most days walking on Calle General Rodriguez which was the street between the apartment where I lived and the studio where I worked, a street with no more than 5 or 6 people of colour who all felt the need to give a slight wave or a salute as if to say ‘Aluta Continua mntase’.
My time in Madrid was the first time I really felt alone, the first time I had no choice but to be an adult and be strong. On my first day I found out that there were few people who cared for the English language and that my inability to speak Spanish would result in my total alienation from most conversations, while I recovered from that I had to deal with the fact that I would have to survive two months with no atchar or vinegar on my chips. Before I left I did not think about the culture shocks I would experience while I was there and I did not imagine that they would cause extreme anxiety on some days. What hit me hardest was adjusting to living in a country that was also a former colonizer because after all I had come from a former colony, and the contrasts were obvious. The first was the many monuments that still hailed people like Christopher Columbus as pioneer navigators who discovered unknown lands, leaving out the fact that those lands had people, natives occupying them. I was often struck by the somewhat ignorant attitude that the locals had towards the historical effects of European colonialism, I found myself often being corrected when I used the term ‘we were colonised’ instead of saying ‘we were conquered’ which was the more acceptable term. I spent most days comparing the differences between where I had come from, a former colony and where I was, a former coloniser.
I lived near the Rio del Manzanares River which is right across the home stadium for Atletico Madrid, the view from my room seemed too good to be true, magical sunrises and mesmerising sunsets. The energy from the stadium during matches was electric, though often times I felt like it lacked ‘that thing,’ perhaps due to the lack of vuvuzela sounds.
The studio was spacious and easy to work in despite the cold; it quickly became one of my favourite spaces because I could get lost in the work while I was there. Taking pictures was the most liberating thing I did while I was there…because it was the only thing that was familiar to me. It was the only exercise that did not require much conversation and it became my relief, I set up a makeshift studio in the space that was provided to me, I got the other artists from the studio to pose as models for my shoots and just like that work was underway. Everyday my main focus on most days was to get to the studio and get work done.
The idea that working class people in the Spanish context are considered to be at a lower class even if they can afford to ride on hover boards and buy soccer stadium tickets any day of the week to support the working man’s team, Atletico Madrid, took me a while to grasp. Because where I had come from, working class meant living on an income of less than R2500 a month and being thankful if you can get to eat meat for more than once in a single month. I was often conflicted because even though I was told that the barrio I lived in was made up of predominantly working class citizens, it still had some aspects of a middle class neighbourhood in the South African context, I felt more like I was living in the Hyde Park of Madrid, with its self-conscious citizens who went on jogs twice every day, fur coat madams who dressed to kill for a walk to the local store and dogs and their masters taking strolls through the Rio del Manzanares park on an average weekday.
Being a temporary citizen in a foreign city helped me grow more in two months than I could have in my whole life. I learnt that language though sacred, can also become a form of oppression in some instances, I learnt that even though people look different, even though we speak different languages at some point our different experiences shape how we see the world and how we interact with other people. As an artists I learnt that you will not always have what you need to produce a good body of work but at all times you must do what you can with what you have, I learnt how to passionately produce a body of work in a short amount of time whilst also curating and installing an exhibition in an unknown and unfamiliar space. More importantly I learnt that the world is not always willing to learn about our continent and the beauty and wealth it holds, thus as African creatives it’s important for us never to filter our voices to suite the world and that our stories are just as important and that they need to be told by us, now more than ever, and I can only hope that I will continue to produce from Africa, to the world.